While our 2009 wasn't as successful as it was for other teams, we saw enough to expect more success in 2010 and beyond. There's a lot to like about the Green Bay Packers going forward, unless of course you're cheering for the other team. But which players fit in the best? Which don't? Which ones are keepers, and which ones need to be driven out of town? It's time to look at who did well (and who didn't), and ultimately what their role will be going forward.
Let me tell you a story.
A college linebacker dominates opposing offenses throughout his career. His success propels him to the top of the draft charts, and he's selected in the top five. He's widely praised as the "safest pick in the draft" and the only "can't-miss player". He's consistent, with solid fundamentals, takes good angles, rarely makes mistakes, uses proper leverage, and actually wraps up when he tackles. All in all, he's a quietly effective player.
A few years go by, and the linebacker does exactly what he was advertised to do. He doesn't have great sack totals, because he's not a pass rusher. He's not a shutdown cover man, because that's not who he is. He doesn't lay other players out with big-time hits, because that's not his style. You occasionally heard his name while making a tackle in conjunction with a teammate. Other than that, it's nothing but gray.
This can't be right, can it? A top-5 pick in the draft can't just be a boring linebacker who limits mistakes, can it? We need sacks, we need picks, we need highlight-reel knockout hits! I'm bored watching this guy play! Why can't we get that other guy that shows up on SportsCenter? Sure, he might lose outside containment once in a while, or screw up a coverage scheme, but look at those hits! He's a beast! We should've gotten him!
Sound familiar? This is the story of A.J. Hawk over his short career, and he's at risk of being one of the most misunderstood players in franchise history.
A.J. Hawk's style is boring. He doesn't take stupid risks or allow himself to make dumb mistakes. He goes out there, executes his assignment, and returns to the huddle for the next one. It's so nondescript, YouTube doesn't even have any sort of non-college highlight reel for him.
Strange to think, though, that the second-leading tackler for one of the league's best defenses can be described as non-descript. Nick Barnett may be one of the emotional leaders, and Charles Woodson and Nick Collins certainly make more than their share of big plays, and Clay Matthews was one of this season's biggest surprises, but should we overlook a player who averages 100 tackles a season?
Moving from 4-3 OLB to 3-4 ILB was unquestionably one of the biggest question marks going into the season. Hawk had performed relatively well in Nick Barnett's absence last season, but taking an interior lineman out of the equation would expose Hawk to tough, quick offensive guards that would engage him over the line of scrimmage and drive him off the ball. In 2009, Hawk went through spells of playing fewer snaps than other linebackers, including coverage specialist Brandon Chillar and "pass rusher" Brady Poppinga. However, whenever he was in the game, he performed to the best of his abilities, which really is all you can ask of him.
Don't get me wrong, there's no question that Hawk has improvements to make. He's still not good enough in pass coverage to merit staying on the field in nickel and dime packages. He has trouble disengaging from blocks because his arms are just a tad short. He's had trouble with nagging injuries that partly robbed him of his sideline-to-sideline range, some of which can likely be prevented through better stretching and conditioning.
But this is the story of A.J. Hawk over his short career. The 26 year old Buckeye has been solid-but-unspectacular for four years now, and some of us (myself included) took exception to that. But we're forgetting exactly what football is about and what kind of players you need to make it work. Sure, you need a ball hawk, and a sack artist, and an enforcer. But you need setup men. You need guys to do all the little things that put the other players in position to make the sack, force the turnover, and get the big tackle. You need someone to occupy the pulling guard, or to cover the checkdown option, or to chuck the tight end as he releases, or force the runner back inside. You need someone to do all this dirty work. And few NFL players do the dirty work better than A.J. Hawk.